Category Archives: Uncategorized

Welcome to the Curatorial economy

Curatorial ability. You have it. And up until til now, you just gave it away.

We are all culture curators one way or another. We are passionate about graphic novels, hip hop, noir films, craft beer, computer games, folk arts, or this thing called American culture or those people called the French. Something.

As curators, we have deep knowledge.

Go ahead. Ask us about Game of Thrones. And make yourself comfortable. Because we will talk for hours: the story lines, actors, producers, backstories, and why X did Y to Z. (That bastard!)

Our curator knowledge is vast and diverse. It stretches in all directions. We know something about a lot of things, and a ton about several things in particular. We are curators broad and curators deep.

Our curatorial knowledge is so vast, we don’t see it as knowledge. We don’t see it as valuable. We don’t think of it as an accomplishment.

Maybe this is the reason we just give it away.

Our curatorial competence ends up being a gift economy in the worst sense of the term: one party gives and the other party takes.

We supply our curatorial knowledge to someone in the world. And that’s that. No money changes hands. No recognition is forthcoming. The curator gives. The corporation just helps itself.

Recently we saw the creator economy suddenly lift off. Suddenly there is money to be had for those who make culture in the form of videos, game play, TikTok performances, Instragram images, podcasts and even blog posts. (No, not this one.)

Money is pouring into the creator economy. One case in point: https://www.jellysmack.com

So how about a curatorial economy?

I mean, really. How about it? 

I will post on the curator economy again tomorrow. 

Look for “The Curatorial economy II (how to be Malcolm Gladwell or at least try).

If this approach interests you, please consider joining us at culture.camp in June!

How an anthropologist thinks about the travel industry

As you may know, we are on the verge of a new Culture Camp. Details here: www.culture.camp!

This morning we got a query from a guy in the travel industry, who wanted to know why the camp could be useful for someone in his industry.

I thought you might be interested in my reply!

Eric

Great to hear your voice.

Here are a couple of thoughts on culture and travel that will help indicate some of the things we will be thinking about in Culture Camp.

A knowledge of culture helps identify who the consumer is and what they want to be.

Here is what the travel industry looks like through the culture prism.

One of the trends we are watching (and I am sure you are seeing it too) is women traveling alone.

This is driven, we believe, by lots of things but especially perhaps by the success of Eat, Pray, Love as well as Under the Tuscan Sun.

We are looking at the possibility that this will get another push if and when we see the rise of a female Anthony Bourdaine. We are looking for this.

Or for that matter, a woman doing a version of the Stanley Tucci doc that’s just come out, Searching for Italy, I think it’s called.

Another development in culture is the way boomers are redefining their 70s and 80s. The model here used to be a decline into passivity and a cruise ship. As they search for something more active and transformational, new models are called for (and probably emerging). Would love to hear your thoughts here too.

In general, the trend is away from owning things to gathering experiences and it feels like travel is a perfect arena for this undertaking.

Foodies, in the Stanley Tucci tradition, have new reasons to travel. (Fifty percent of Americans are now prepared to call themselves foodies!)

DNA and the genealogical work is helping people see that they have connections to countries that used to be just colors on a map. Looking for the home of your ancestry (see the very interesting work of Henry Louis Gates here) supplies another motive.

Airbnb used to sell itself (and it may still) as a chance to be embedded in a place, as opposed merely a tourist there. So we are looking for new ways to be a tourist … and escape the old tourism model.

Hope this helps! We would love to see you!

Best, Grant

Come join us!

Two new books!

My apologies to readers.

I haven’t posted in a while.

But I have an excuse.

Two excuses actually.

I spent the first half of 2020 scrambling to finish a book. The New Honor Code is now out. (Please support Cultureby.com by buying a copy!)

And I spent the second half of the year scrambling to finish The Return of the Artisan. This too is from Simon and Schuster and appears in the Summer of 2021. (Pre-order here: https://www.amazon.com/Return-Artisan-America-Industrial-Handmade-ebook/dp/B08LDVY6J2/. Please.)

Creativity in a COVID era (Web 2.0 all over again?)

“You can find awesome rhythm in everything. People will hear certain breaks that I make and be like, ‘Where’d that come from?’ I’ll be like, ‘That was the part where dude was running down the steps in “Annie Get Your Gun.”‘”
[Quelle Chris, producer, quoted in jason hirschhorn’s @MusicREDEF, Aug. 26, 2020]

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confirmed sighting

Quelle Chris was just minding his own business, watching a musical 40 years older than himself, washed over by all that motion and music.

One detail sticks: the sound of a dude running down the steps. Can’t have been more than a couple of seconds, a tiny fraction of Annie Get Your Gun. But it sticks.

It sticks and then it returns!

Years later, Quelle Chris is solving a problem and something deep inside the vaults of memory breaks free and climbs right up to and into the conscious mind.

And starts shouting, “Me! That rhythm you’re looking for. It’s me!”

At a minimum, creativity is two things: pattern capture and pattern delivery.

The capture is mysterious. Why that detail from a musical and not one of the thousands of other details? Something in it speaks to something in us. And the unconscious mind says, “I’ll have that” and spears it out of the stream of consciousness.

Pattern delivery feels still more mysterious. How do things find their way back up stream, none the worse for spearing, back into consciousness years later?

For some reason, I think of the unconscious mind as operating like that ancient guy in a still more ancient hardware store. “Hank” (see greasy badge on chest) stands behind a bank filled with every kind of, well, hardware. And when you come in and say, “Do you know what this is?” Hank says, “Sure I’ve got one of those. Gimme a sec.” and begins to scrutinize his many tiny boxes of battered cardboard.

Of course Hank has it.

“Here you go.” he says, “That will be 47 cents.” (Why does everything in the old hardware stores cost too little?)

It’s as if everything sits in memory spring loaded, ready to undertake an instant passage from “concealed in memory” to “irresistibly present.” Like, dude, how? Like, right?

Ours is an age obsessed with creativity and innovation. Before COVID we staged a million brainstorms. The air turned yellow with post-its. Everyone was invited. We tried to make the mysteries of Quelle Chris and Hank happen at will.

And we did a pretty good job of it. We made the brainstorm deliver magical things. But all that’s gone, struck down by the fever. (And if you think brainstorms are being delivered by Zoom, for god sake, tell me about it.)

The COVID era forces us back on our own resources. It’s up to us to “Quelle and Hank” it on our own. Are we working on this? Are we?

Maybe this marks a return to an earlier internet. Remember those early days? That pre-COVID fever. All of us offering up thoughts that might “stick” for someone else, eventually “returning” to aid them solve a problem.

The question (and I do have one) is how is our “Quelle and Hank” efforts going? Lot’s of activity? Lots of productivity? Or were we so domesticated by the group mind and corporate brainstorm that we are now estranged from Quelle and Hank. Let me know.

Acknowledgements

to Matty Karas at jason hirschhorn’s always provocative @musicredef.

to Pip Coburn for a glimpse at the way he thinks about the creative process.

to Sara Winge and Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty for the Web 2.0 idea that helped us make that transition from a passive web to an active one. It does feel like passivity has returned, that the old days of the old fever need a reboot.

to Harry and Elizabeth McCracken.

Oh and when you have a moment, please see my new website at www.mapping-the-future.com. It’s brand new this week. I would love your comments.

For more on Quelle Chris

Mullen, Kyle. 2019. “Quelle Chris Has Always Been Great; Now He’s Bringing Out the Big ‘Guns.’” Exclaim.Ca. 2019. https://exclaim.ca/music/article/quelle_chris_has_always_been_fantastic_now_hes_bringing_out_the_big_guns.

 

This morning Twitter Kissed Culture Hard on the Mouth

Originally published on Medium, January 21, 2020

Recently the marketing team at Twitter put culture at the heart of what they do, in that most precious territory, the value proposition.

This is great, I thought. A company as connected and powerful as Twitter using culture to describe what it does, that has to be good for us all.

Because, let’s face it, we have all struggled to put the culture idea on the agenda. People give it lip service, but when it comes to hiring people to supply cultural intelligence, not so much.

I see a lot of really big talents languishing for want of a more sophisticated approach. Culture is always and everywhere in the work of the creative, strategic, design, digital, innovation, social, marketing, content creator and curator. But it is almost never acknowledged as such. AND THAT MEANS THE PERSON WHO IS HELPING THE ORGANIZATION CONNECT TO CULTURE IS NOT GETTING THEIR DUE.

After work, everyone, including senior managers, goes to the bar and talks about culture. They talk about what they are watching on Netflix, and this is entirely cultural because a Netflix show cannot matter unless it resonates with something in us and that cannot happen unless the show resonates with something in our culture. But back on the job, the senior managers forget this. It’s back to business as usual. It’s back to business without culture.

Why isn’t culture identified in the value proposition of the corporation? It comes down to four problems. (Well, four will do for starters.)

1. OK boomer

Partly this is a generational problem.

This spring I wrote an essay on Culture and Design. (Let me know if you want a copy.) I had been reading Design Thinking statements, and none of them mentioned culture.

I opened my essay by noting this was like listening to an economist talking about economics without talking about value or a physicist talking about physics without talking about energy.

I sent this essay to someone in the Design Thinking field. Here’s how he characterized what he thought I was saying.

“I am the culture guy. I believe culture is super important. So I am going to write 22 more pages on why the culture guy thinks culture is more important than non-culture people do.”

For this person, my essay was a form of special pleading. Because for him, culture is a minority interest. And, no, you don’t need to know about culture to talk about design.

OK boomer.

This person has been taken captive by all the old generational stereotypes. For him, culture is additional, superficial in both the conventional and the literal sense of the term. It’s a thing of surfaces, something we slap on, something we can therefore strip away. And that is the job of smart, tough minded people. They take pride in removing anything that doesn’t speak to the practical, the utilitarian, and the consumer’s pursuit of economic self interest narrowly defined.

This is what boomers think of culture. It’s the way they exclude it from business. Thus do they short-change their professional responsibilities. Much worse, thus do they force their organization to compromise its navigational instruments and understandings.

2. A branding problem to be sure

The culture idea has many variations on the theme. Time to rethink and relaunch. Some people insist that culture means “corporate culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “high culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “popular culture” (and it does…) The culture we care about sits above all of these. It’s like language in several ways but particularly this: it operates silently and invisibly to supply a grid that divides the world into categories. As William Gibson says, “We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.” We could think of culture as the software we install in that hardware called the brain to make the world make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of Ethiopia, France, or Scotland. It supplies meanings without which life in Ethiopia, France or Scotland is largely mystifying.

Culture means the rules and meanings with which people grasp the world around them. Imagine an hour in Manhattan if you were from, say, the Mongolian steppes. You would be in a state of astonishment. And this is not because Manhattan can be percussive and even concussive, but because you don’t have the cultural template in your head that lets you grasp what you are looking at.

But culture is also the rules and meanings with which people craft the world around them. Some people are very good at meme making. Others not so much. The difference depends upon whether you have managed to divine the grammar of this emergent form, figuring out how to use it, and put it to work. American culture is restless and innovative. It was only a few years ago that there was no such thing as a meme. Then, for a moment it was a wild experiment. Now it’s a standard creative voice. Ours is a culture under constant reconstruction.

3. Frankfurt School

We understand why the Frankfurt school was so deeply suspicious of culture, but their thinking helped create several generations of academics who could not see American culture except as an act of manipulation and false consciousness. And this created generations of students who loved culture, who lived culture, but struggled to find a way to take it seriously.

Now they take it seriously. Now they decode our culture with an eye for subtlety and nuance. Now they invent culture in the form of memes, fandom, blogging, pop ups, videos, remixes, and all that editorial comment on Twitter. But thanks to the Frankfurt school, these people don’t always have a formal idea of what they are doing. A meme has nothing to do with a blog post which has nothing to do with a video. The world is a collection of discrete events. For want of an idea of culture they cannot see the bigger picture or the deeper one.

4. Sloppy thinking

Take the notion of the gift economy. We all know to genuflect when this term comes up. We get a little teary eyed at the thought of people giving of their creativity freely. But let’s be clear about this. There are millions of kids writing many more millions of lines of culture. They are (almost) never compensated. As a result these authors will have to work at McDonald’s again this summer. Even a small amount of value would free them to refine their craft, in the process building their art and our culture. On reflection, it occurred to me that the only people who really profit from the gift economy have tenure and big fat professorial salaries. (See my bad tempered essay, (sorry, Clay,) called The Gift Economy: a reply to Clay Shirky).

The point: until we build an economy that rewards and funds culture creators, we are starving our culture and excluding a generation (or two). A 14 year old fan fiction writer doesn’t need to make much money, just enough to free her from the french fry line. I can’t believe that some brand hasn’t taken the leadership position here. Oh, wait, perhaps Twitter just did. Spotify recently made steps in that direction. And Patreon is of course one variation on direct fan support.

Culture culture

Given what we know, making a culture for culture shouldn’t be that hard. We understand the sociology and anthropology of how communities form. We know how to build networks. We know how to wire a world with Twitter and Instagram. Right?

The trouble is we are not pack animals. We’re quick to wear the culture badge on our sleeve, but not to join the lodge or pay the dues. This could change.

For starters, we want a bulletin board in which people talk about the problems they are working on.

I’ll start. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve.

▪️ Reading the future

I am working on a “big blue board.” (Yes, it’s a stupid name. But if you saw the Board you would understand.) This attempts to combine big data and thick data to create an early warning system to see the future coming. At the moment, I am tracking the crisis in retail, the effects of the gig economy, the change in the status of pets in America, the way we are rethinking status and privilege, the decline of ownership, something called “rewilding,” and 200 other trends. The problem here: as the world becomes faster, more chaotic, more disruptive, everyone is trying to figure out how to see what’s coming. (Rita McGrath at Columbia just published a book called Seeing Around Corners.) Can people who get culture make a contribution and if so what?

One of the big challenges: getting the data. In turns out, people would rather reveal the intimate details of their sex lives and financial standing than share corporate data. I don’t know how we solve this problem. But we have to.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the investors were unable to get their mitts on good data easily. And along came Michael Bloomberg and his terminals. Somewhere out there in our culture culture there is someone who will do for cultural data what Bloomberg did for financial data, and make themselves fabulously wealthy into the bargain.

▪️ Working on our novel

I’m finishing up a novel called Anna about a couple of guys who go to LA, install massive computing power in an old warehouse in Chinatown, and begin the hunt for the secrets of Hollywood. They are discovered by a Hollywood celebrity who understands that popular culture is capricious and that she must change to survive. The point of the exercise was to find a lively way to tell the story of culture. Did it work? Kinda sorta. I had to teach myself how to write fiction. Not sure how well I did.

The point of this there are lots of media in which to conduct our study of culture.

▪️ Working on theory and concept

One of the problems with culture is that it is so very amorphous. One of our first requirements then is a nice, clear, compact definition of what culture is.

My current definition says culture is meanings and rules. The trouble with most marketing, branding, design, strategy, and innovation is that it uses culture without ever treating it as culture, and it works with a small piece of culture without any sense of the larger architecture of meaning from which this comes. This is fine for clients. But those of us who work with culture need, I think, to construct a great vaulted ceiling that shows all the meanings of American culture and a sense of where they been and where they are going (hence the Big Blue Board). We need the entire “periodic table,” so to speak. (Apologies for the welter of metaphors. Anyone suffering whip lash or nose bleeds is asked to report to the Medium nursing station immediately.)

Here’s a good example of rules. Many young women (some men, and a lot of Canadian men interestingly) used to end a sentence with an interrogative upswing. This is sometimes called “uptalk.” We have seen some women undertake a new strategy. Now they end a sentence with a “vocal fry.” This replaces the upturn with a downturn. (Kim Kardashian may or may not be the innovator here. In any case she served as a super agent in its diffusion.)

This cultural rule says “end a sentence with a question mark even when it is an assertion.” And that rule is now being challenged by a new rule that says, “end a sentence with a down turn.” This rule springs, in part, from the gender meanings with which we define femaleness. This is American culture in action. It is almost certainly feminism in action. (The upturn communicates uncertainty. The downturn says, take it or leave it.) The actors rarely see that they are obeying rules. Because culture conceals itself. But these rules are nevertheless active and formative. We use a great many rules in the “presentation of self in everyday life” as Goffman called it. These days it feels like the famous Goffman formula could also be written the “construction of self in everyday life.” We are all works in progress. We change (as/and the rules do).

Clients don’t need to see the vaulted ceiling that shows the meanings of American culture. They don’t need to see the rule book that contains the instructions for “being American.” But our work gets better when we do. When we advise clients too often we do not give them detailed rationales for our recommendations. Worst case, creatives “just know” they are “on to something.” Eesh! In an age in which things change so fast, the cost of error is so high, and CMO tenures are so fleeting, we have to do better. We have to be able to say there is a system, a discipline, and a profession. 

This will have a sorting effect. Clients will be able to choose their consultants more intelligently. And that means consultants will begin to get the clients they deserve.

I am always having a discussion with myself when I should be having that discussion with the culture community (aka the culture culture). Recently I have been asking whether it is enough to call culture merely “meanings” and “rules.” Maybe , I thought, I want to add “conventions” to my definition.

Here’s how that went. I was working for Netflix on how TV was changed. I needed a good way to talk about this change. Raiding the field of political science, I decided to posit a contract between viewers and showrunners. The old contract said things like “on TV, bad things can’t happen to good people.” Once we identified with a character, no harm could come to them. Now of course bad things routinely happened to good people. (I wrote this up for a Boston conference. You can find it on Slideshare here.) The argument to make here is that the revolution on TV can be seen as a rewriting of the contract between showrunner and viewer and this can be seen as a change in our cultural conventions.

Ok, now I have a problem. In the heat of the moment, I used “convention” to explain the data. But it’s neither meaning nor rule. So have I changed the model…or not? This is culture theory as an open question. I think we should all have models. And one of the points of culture culture is precisely to compare and contrast these models. There is a ton of work here. Let a 1000 models bloom.

▪️ Moving and making meanings

Culture does not confine itself to the conventional expression of conventional meanings. We are constantly inventing new meanings (e.g., new ideas of femaleness) and giving them new expressions (e.g., vocal fry).

In fact, our culture continues to rethink the way it works with meanings. We can posit 4 approaches.

In the first, we use marketing, advertising, design, innovation, social media, and PR as informed by research, planning and strategy, to put meanings (old and new) into brands and services. This is a simple process of transfer. The ad transfers meanings from culture to brand. It is almost exactly like metaphor. “Look, X is very like Y” invites us to take what we know about X and use it to think about Y. “He ran like a gazelle.” “The world began with a big bang.” 

Thus in the early 1960s a print ad in Life would show the new Lincoln sitting at the verge of a fox hunt in Connecticut. “Look,” said the ad, “this car has the same meanings at the fox hunt. Surely you can see that.” Hilarious, yes, but it spoke to the status aspirations of a rising middle class. This is what marketing in general and advertising in particular spent most of the 20th century doing. (Except of course when the ad was merely an informational exercise. And in this event, no one, not the agency, the client or the consumer, could conceal their disinterest.)

Stage 2, starting some time in the 1990s, grew tired and resentful of this kind of meaning making and said, “Oh, please, this is just so dumb. Surely we can manage something more interesting.” The “alternative” 90s preferred a meaning-making strategy that combined unlikely meanings, meanings that did not “go” together. This would put Tarantino, Beck, Jay-Z, and Frank Black and the Pixies in the same category. The effects were arresting. We were looking at the systematic violation of the “combinatorial” conventions in our culture. The effect was “fresh.” We liked “fresh.” Increasingly, “fresh” came from combinatorial violation.

Stage 3 is an exaggeration of Stage 2. In this stage (still active) some of the best culture came out of a deliberate collision of genres. Because genres were dying. They were simply too predictable for our new interpretive gifts. So we put things into the particle accelerator and ran them together. The effects were explosive. “Cyclotron culture” was fascinating. See Jon Caramanica’s account of the album by 100 gecs. “This duo’s debut album, 1000 gecs, smashes electro-pop, dance music, punk and dozens of other rapid-fire reference points into something genuinely new and exhilarating.”

Stage 4 sees the advent of a new kind of meaning making. This is subtle and cunning. Less about colliding culture and more about braiding and splicing it. This is about acts of ingenuity that the culture creator cannot perform unless she is fully the master of culture and that the rest of us can only “get” because we are so much better at culture. Not everyone is. Nas X was asked why he thought Billboard had removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. He suggested “the song’s ingenuity might have intimidated them.” When this kind of meaning making works, it provokes the smile people wear when confronted by something really clever. You know the one. I wrote a book about Stage 4 meaning making called Chief Culture Officer.

Until we are prepared to put the idea of culture at the center of all these creative undertakings (advertising, social, PR, branding, design, planning, innovation, experience, activation, marketing), it is hard to see that there is one world here. It’s harder still for creatives to see what they have in common. Culture gives us the opportunity to embrace the whole of marketing and creativity in a single point of view.

There are several interesting puzzles here. I think the very gifted Mark Earls is wrong to say that all culture is the repetition of culture. I think there is a cultural grammar that is genuinely generative. But this too is an open question. What are the specific techniques with which people make movies, ads and memes? How is culture drawn upon and given to, that’s the question. (Mark has a new book out called Creative Superpowers.)

I think people are wrong to say that the only meaning that matters now for brands are the ones marked “social purpose” or “social advocacy.” These matter to be sure. But they are not the only meanings that can make a brand vibrate. Quite apart from the problem of cause fatigue, as Tanya Dua calls it, there are almost an endless provinces of meaning out there. And the good marketer is Marco Polo.

Peter Spear and I have been trying to have this conversation since December. (See his excellent blog That Business of Meaning.) I thank him for the provocation.

▪️ Working on method

We are pretty good, most of us, at using ethnography or something like it. Time to add new methods.

More and more, I am using big data and AI. There is too much waterfront in our diverse, changeable culture for us to depend on qualitative data alone. Or put it this way, only quantitative data can tell us where we should be collecting out qualitative data.

We also need to think more about how to present our work to the client. One method is “scenario planning” which I first got to see in action at Herman Miller. It’s a useful way to present alternative futures. But more important it helps engage clients in the problem solving. See the recent book by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon called Moments of Impact and The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.

House building

Again, we are not pack animals.

But surely, we can build an institutional lattice work!

In a perfect world, we would have a university home. While Syd Levy, John Kelly and Rob Kozinets were still there, this was the Kellogg business school at Northwestern. Ditto the magnificent group Henry Jenkins built at MIT. (He has since moved to USC.)

I am always impressed by how many people with a gift for culture have a connection to Brown University. (Take a bow, Ken Anderson, Kate Hammer and Brad Grossman. See Brad’s Zeitguide here.) Who is responsible for Brown’s contribution to the cause? Suggestions please.

Londoners are unusually brainy when it comes to matters cultural. I couldn’t possibly name everyone who has impressed me there but I’m going to try: Russell Davies, Amelia Torode, Henry Mason, Andy Dexter, Leanne Tomasevic, Richard Wise, John Curran, Lee Sankey, Tracey Follows, John Willshire, Petar Vujosevic, Nick Morris, Johnny Vulcan, Nick Sherrard, Adam Chmielowski, Beeker Northam, Stuart Smith, Jon Howard, Martina Olbertova, Frederica Carlotta and Ben Malbon.

But what was I saying about institutional homes for the study of culture? Ken Anderson is at Princeton at the Keller School. Caley Cantrell is at VCU Brand Center. Rob Kozinets is at USC. I wonder if Michael Diamond could be persuaded to build something into the School of Professional Studies at NYU. Maybe Rob Fields could build it into his Weeksville Heritage Center. Or perhaps now that Amran Amed has colonized the world of fashion (see his revolutionary Business of Fashion) perhaps he would love to climb the vertical and assume control of the cultural high ground.

But of course we don’t need an academic locus. In a post bricks-and-mortar age, we have world-building technologies of our own.

But someone will need to stand up and nominate themselves as the still center of the storm. This person would need the networking gifts of a Napier Collyns. He or she will need the strategic genius of a Sam Ford (now preoccupied by his new assignment at Simon and Schuster.) I had a great conversation last year with Sam Hornsby at Havas. He would be great at this. Sparks and Honey is deeply capable when it comes to the culture idea. Perhaps CEO Terry Young would consider taking on a broader mandate. Robert Morais and Timothy Malefyt have created a home for Business Anthropology. Maybe they would be prepared to cast the net to include those who are interested in culture but are not anthropologists. Or maybe it could be Samantha Ladner, Patti Sunderland, Phil Surles, Eric Nehrlich, Sophie Wade, Ed Cotton, Collyn Ahart, Dan Gould, Faris Yakob, Martin Carriere, Clay Parker Jones, Garth Kay, Melissa Fisher, Rick Liebling or Gillian Tett. I wonder if we could persuade a brand or an agency to create a fellowship so that someone could spend a year setting up a “Culture College.”

Most of all, we need to establish a place in the minds of the clients who fund our work (those of us who live outside the academy). This has to be a shared task: books, conferences. The only thing we don’t want to share is the clients themselves. That would be wrong.

A change inside the corporation?

A change has to be made in the American corporation. This is what makes the revelation from Twitter marketing so exciting. Finally someone is prepared to lead with the culture idea. And if it’s good enough for Twitter, surely it’s good enough for Delta and American, NFL and MLB, Hertz and Avis, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Ford and Chrysler, CBS and NBC, Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft and Apple, and all the brands struggling for oxygen.

Surely, there is a change in the works. I read with interest a story in Variety called Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds.Yes, get rid of the Old Biz Models. Please.

And there was a great article on the HBS website called “NFL Head Coaches Are Getting Younger. What Can Organizations Learn?” It draws on a piece in the Washington Post by Adam Kilgore which includes this passage.

“For years the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses, and innovation taking root slowly.”

The HBS piece concludes,

“This conservative approach to hiring seems to have changed in recent years. As early risk-takers have been rewarded with high-profile success, others have become more willing to take chances themselves.”

Perfect, I thought. Perhaps we can hope for a changing of the guard at the American organization.

The younger you are, the more you treat culture as an obvious good, a useful instrument, and the very heart of your personal interests and identity construction. There are a couple of generations waiting to take their place in the corporation, to be valued by the corporation, to be paid by the corporation, to be advanced by the corporation to the C Suite. Enough with “let’s ask the intern.”

The time for culture is coming. But we keep saying that. How do we hasten the day? Thank you, Twitter, for taking the initiative.

A couple of things I’m liking

Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books, 2017.

Peter Spear has an excellent blog called That Business of Meaning.

Chris Perry has an excellent blog called Media Genius.

Katarina Graffman has a wonderful TED talk about culture here.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Balsy for thoughts on the first draft.

Biography

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Boston Book Festival, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House.

Death of the superhero?

Screen Shot 2019-08-18 at 8.04.59 839AMReading the future is hard. It takes sharp eyes. It takes lively imaginations. It takes smart models. (There is a “good head on your shoulders” joke to be made here, but I’m going to restrain myself.)

Most of all, reading the future takes the ability to see the things coming when they are a mere smear on the radar screen, a trace of green. Is that Southwest flight 1440 taking a film crew to Sante Fe? Or is it an artifact of an aging navigational system. Only the very gifted can say.

On Thursday (Aug. 15), Chris Ryan and Sean Fennessey convened on the blog called The Watch to discuss a new show called The Boys (around the 12:00 mark). This show is interesting because it posits a world in which superheroes now work for the corporation. They have been corrupted. They are cynical. These superheroes are all working for the man.

At roughly the 14:15 mark, Fennessey says the advent of The Boys is telling.

“This is how you know we are in stage 3 of superheroes as an important cultural force.”

Fennessey believes this is indeed the final stage of the superhero moment. The first was defined by Spider-Man. The second was defined (and dominated) by Marvel. And this third as defined by the likes of Dead Pool, Suicide Squad and now The Boys. Here at stage 3 the genre gets darker, nastier, more worldly. Idealism is swapped out for story lines and characters that are more complicated and less predictable.

Hey, presto. Someone makes a prediction. Fennessey takes a stand. We have a prediction. Superheroes are in their last moment. And a great chunk of popular culture hangs in the balance.

Thank you, Mr. Fennessey. This is a real public service. There are lots of people who claim to see the future coming. Almost no one is prepared to stake a claim, to go on the record, to risk being wrong.

In fact most of us in the forecasting biz are disingenuous. We don’t often make predictions. And when we do, we erase them, the better to create the impression that we are faultless, immaculate, batting at least 900%. When it comes to predicting the future, people like to backdate their checks and otherwise fudge the record.

This is cowardly, but it is also disappointing. Because predictions are useful even when they are wrong. They tell us about possible futures (“adjacent futures” as Stuart Kauffman calls them). Now we are prepared. Now some of us can look at that smear on the radar and go, “You know, I think that could be that thing Fennessey was talking about.”

It’s useful to look for alternate explanations. As part of our “Superhero watch,” I propose two. I am not saying Fennessey is wrong. I am saying let’s get our best ideas on the table, the better to see the future coming.

1) What Fennessey sees in the advent of stage 3 is perhaps not the Icarian fall of superheroes. It may be a simple case of genre going post genre. And let’s face it, it had to. Superheroes were increasingly, to use a second term from Stuart Kauffman, “overformed.” They had quit growing. Increasingly they were a forced march, an exercise in the indubitable. We could see outcomes a long way off. Change or die, it applies even to superheroes.

2) What Fennessey sees as the advent of stage 3 is part of a larger development identified by Hargurchet Bhabra, the Canadian novelist and culture guru. Bhabra observed the improvements taking place in popular culture and said, in effect, “As long as popular culture was the captive of commercial forces, it was going to disappoint from any genuinely creative or intellectual point of view. But now that is now also the possession of large and active audiences, it is getting steadily better. And that means, at some point, popular culture becomes culture plain and simple.” By this reckoning, the superhero arc is following the trajectory of everything in (popular) culture. It started small. It’s getting better. This means letting in the dark, amongst other things.

I don’t intend to make a prediction about Fennessey’s prediction. It was a moment of illumination for me. I am trying to map and track everything in contemporary culture so anytime I can get a head’s up from an expert, my job is easier and I am grateful.

Post scripts:

  1. One more methodological point for the trend watching reader, what are the best metrics for tracking the genre and constructing our “superhero watch?” I would be grateful for any and all suggestions: grant27@gmail.com.
  2. Speaking of the “adjacent possible,” see what Rick Liebling is doing with the idea here. Very interesting.
  3. Check out the rate for Wired subscriptions. 10 bucks! I was looking at the Kauffman article on Wired and up came the inevitable “subscribe now” invitation. “Great,” I thought, “someone else wants $100 for a subscription.” This has got to be the best bargain in publishing.

Business anthropology: some thoughts

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A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as were Caitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)

Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)

After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.

Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.

1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.

2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?

3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.

4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.

5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.

5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).

5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).

5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.

5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.

6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look.  Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.

Martha Stewart: the old guard departs

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 5.56.08 636PMTime Magazine invited Martha Stewart and the stars of Fixer Upper, Joanna and Chip Gaines, to the TIME 100 gala early this week.

Chip says, “She didn’t have the faintest idea who we are, not a single clue.” How very sad. Martha was looking at her replacement.

[Please visit the original Medium post here for the remainder of this essay.]

Why massacres happen and how to stop them

[written as an anthropological response to the New Zealand massacre of March 2019. I was in the field, doing ethnographies.]

I’ve spent the last month out of the shipping lanes of American prosperity, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey. In one case, I visited a town of roughly 1000 people. This town is two or three departing families away from losing their high school and with this, their high school team, and with this, their town spirit. (The high school matters so much in this scheme of things, the town police cruiser is dressed in school colors.)

If the town is on a knife’s edge, so are some livelihoods. The people who run the hardware story can hear the Amazon dragon over the hill side. Not far behind, robots and AI. And there are all the other problems of American life: poverty, opioid and other kinds of drug abuse, unemployment, families damaged by violence, poverty, and divorce, kids who manifest as aimless, lost even.

It’ll probably be ok. This town has survived many challenges. I walked past a home-made flag pole on top of which was a model airplane in the form of a Lancaster bomber. The work of a hobbyist? A celebration of someone’s departure for service in 1940’s Europe? A way to memorialize loss? Bad things happen. The town has a way of carrying on.

But this time might be different. The uncertainties are stacking up. And when you throw in a few imponderables, and some people begin to lose their nerve and turn to wild thinking and fault finding, and really bad things draw nearer.

Back in a city, plenty more problems. Structural misery, a system of drug abuse, a permanent class of hopeless people, an institutionalized inequality. To be sure the inner city is filled with lifeboats, churches, hospitals, soup kitchens, libraries, shelters. All of them really making an effort without any hope of making a difference.

This is where New Zealand might be said to start. This underclass in an inner city used to be a mystery to the rest of us. They were people we said had failed. They were absolutely other others. But they might as well have been another species. They were “losers.” And by stages this classification has given way to the understanding that, ‘no, actually, that could happen to be me.’ And for some the revelation is still more frightening: ‘that will be me. If things don’t change.’ (Things have been tough enough for long enough that it’s like we’re wearing Frank Capra glasses. You know, the ones that come from watching It’s A Wonderful Life over the holidays. We can see the future, good and bad.)

There are three groups to consider. The first is frightened and angry. They can be mobilized in the ballot box but are otherwise passive. The second is frightened and angry and actively looking for a scape goat. ‘Who is to blame? It’s not going to be me. I worked hard. I did everything asked of me. I sacrificed.’ This group is intellectually mobilized. They call in. They are anti social on social. The third group takes things one horrifying step further. They believe that the world can be restored to order by the murder of ‘outsiders.’ Killing ‘outsiders,’ to some this is a socio-political act, a method of re-equilibration.

And this ‘argument’ would be less compelling if anyone else was making an effort, if people who believe themselves in peril could point to politicians, bureaucrats, NFPs and identify someone who has created something more promising than a life boat.

But they don’t see much of this. They see a Washington filled with people who found a way to help themselves to public resources. They see talk show hosts grown rich as Croesus trafficking in grievance…not solutions. They see intellectuals elites (by which they mean you and me) who are doing nicely. When asked why we have not been more active in coming to their aid, we say things like “well, the economy changes and people are obliged to change with it. Sure it’s going to be painful, but an adjustment has to happen on the ground. People have to do it themselves” People have taken pains to tell me how little comfort this brings them when they are lying in bed at 4 in the morning, wondering if they are going to lose their home.

So what about solutions? I have to say that growing up in Canada, we used to think of the US as a nation of problem solvers, people who took could not wait to exercise their ingenuity.

The solution pieces are easy enough to see. Local economies in a small town are in peril. At least the industrial economies are. The artisanal economies on the other hand are flourishing. Thanks to the revolution put in train by our Mao, Alice Waters, Americans have rethought what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, how they want it grown, harvested and brought to market. The artisanal movement has transformed consumer taste and preference, and not just in food. Ideas of luxury, extravagance, satiety, satisfaction, indulgence, all of these are on the run. Take a bow, Ms. Waters.

A companion change in culture is taking place as boomers (of whom I am one) have crept towards retirement. To no one’s surprise, they are rejected cultural conventions for aging and insisted on a new model sometimes called the Third 30. This says that with enough health and wealth, sometime can redefine themselves radically. (So much for the gentle decline model.) And this create a large, well funded, deeply experienced labor class that is eager to take on new challenges.

Back to the little town on the verge of losing its high school. With the right will and initiative, we could redefine what a teacher is and bring boomers into the loop. Costs of education drop, town spirit perseveres, the police cruiser keeps its colors.

And while we are at it, lets invite artisans to come live here. Now the local economies are somewhat protected from Amazon, AI and the robots. New sources of revenue, tax and otherwise, open up. And notice we know have an economy to which some people living in the inner city can contribute. So let’s invite them too. This little town is vastly better than a life boat.

Someday we will all play for the Patriots

screenshot 2Tom Brady says new plays were inserted into the Patriot’s playbook on Sunday.
“At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. … They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.” (Peter King)
It’s hard to reckon with how big this is. I think we can agree that no team is better coached than the Patriots. So you might think that the Pats didn’t need new plays at this point. In any case, there can’t be many teams smart enough to master new plays in the fleeting hours before a big game. And few coaches who would risk overloading players with novelty at the moment they were overloaded with anxiety.

But this is a measure of the “just in time,” “pure improv,” “adaptation as a continuous event” organization that Coach Belichick has created in New England.  He has fashioned a hyper intelligent beast that can be reprogrammed continuously.

But that’s just for starters.

On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.
    “I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs. They just take a bunch of guys that they think are football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman. Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same playing different positions.”
So this sheer adaptational ability goes right into the heart of personnel decisions, into training, into the very concept Belichick has of what the game can be.

I think it’s fair to say that as business heats up it will summon (and then require) managers with Belichickean gifts. And from these extraordinary managers we can expect new models of what business is. We will see “business models” that change in real time.

Someday we will all play for the Patriots.

Beth Comstock and Kara Swisher on Irritants and De-riskers (coming to a corporate culture near you.)

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[This essay was published on Medium on Sunday (December 2)].

This is a wonderful interview. Two smart people expressing themselves at speed with power and precision. Swisher stops from time to time to sing her own praises. But I’ll take it, especially now that podcast practice is often sloppy thinking coated with a syrupy glaze of “the only thing I really owe you is the sound of my enchanting voice.”

This Recode interview is plain spoken, tough minded, and more or less unfreighted by fashionable ideas. It’s a troika driven bracingly through woods and snow to the safety of a country inn stacked with useful ideas and a blazing hearth of creativity. For the moment, we are rescued from the cold (and those nay-saying corporate cossacks).

Success Theater

Comstock talks about “success theater,” the way an organization beguiles the CEO with an appearance that all is well, that every one of her ideas is irresistibly sensible, and the deep reassuring promise that her kingdom come, her will be done.

Innovation Theater

Comstock also gives us a glimpse of “innovation theater,” those moments when everyone puts on a bright face to embrace the new orthodoxy. Yes, we are well outside the box. Yes, we are going to reinvent near everything. Dude, no problem.

The reality, Comstock knows from her experience at NBC and GE, is otherwise. People are frightened, competitive, and often blinded by a narrow reckoning of their own self interest. Worst of all, new ideas provoke our provincialism. (Surely, NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] is the least worthy and the most dangerous reason to refuse the future. Because, really, if the future is not in your backyard, you’re are, as a professional and an organization, just asking for trouble.)

Failure

So there’s no “isn’t the future wonderful?” blather here. This interview is about the sheer and dour difficulty of change. We have all heard the “war stories” from the early innovators. Too often these are “just so” accounts that conceal the importance of failure and politics. And not just failure as in “ok, that didn’t work, let’s pivot!” But failure as in “oh, shit, we are committed to an idea that hemorrhages value as it loses altitude.”

Comstock is candid about her failures, including iVillage.

“Bought iVillage. It didn’t work. It took it a while not to work.”

Comstock learned something from iVillage as it was failing. This is how we win even when losing. If we are not learning, then the investment really was squandered. But if IP comes out of failure then the loss was a win and the investment worked. This will demand a C-Suite time-line not to mention accounting subtleties we have yet to master.

Comstock built an early in-house content studio. This was a chance to see what worked and what did not, at a time when nothing was obvious or intuitive. You had to try stuff. Comstock’s group invented The Easter Bunny Hates You and Microwave Gorilla. And then Comstock had to protect her lab from the broadcast mothership which really only grasped big, formulaic TV shows, not to mention C-suite carnivores who felt they could spend these resources more intelligently…not to mention an organization that wanted any kind of short-term success for the sake of balance sheet and PR.

Hulu

Still more trial and error, and before you knew it, Comstock had invented Hulu. (Which, thanks to this interview, I now think of Hulu as a kind of YouTube for old media.) And this in turn forced new forms of advertising. Suddenly there were 10-second “post-rolls.”

Lots of useful self criticism. Here Comstock is on politics.

Politics (or, stop being so University of Chicago)

One, I think the big mistake I made, personally and with the team, is kind of the cool kids versus the not-cool kids. And I think that happens a lot in change and I hired a bunch of digital Turks and we were gonna take on the world and I was out with my face on every magazine cover, like, “Yay, digital’s the future.” And I didn’t spend enough time building the bridges and building the partnerships internally.

I think many creatives and strategists tend to think the idea is everything. (Certainly this is the idea I brought out of University of Chicago. And it is, someone told me, the attitude of many Israeli innovators. Both see politics and anything promotional as so much time-wasting and glad-handing.) Both say, “Once we have the idea, we’re done!” The reality is of course, very different. Ideas are where you start, not where you end.

Irritants

There is also great thinking here on the role of the irritant. (The term is Swisher’s.) The idea is that someone has to tie the bell on the cat, someone has to say to Mark Zuckerberg, “What? Are you kidding me? No!” Who dares risk their career like this? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? Only those with Swisher-scale self confidence need apply. They know they don’t need their present position. At all. They can be truth tellers because the world is their oyster, er, option.

(This has wacky implications for hiring. Now we have to hire people we want to keep precisely because we know they’re going to leave. And, er, we want them to. Huh? (I leave this puzzle to the team at Coburn Ventures who recently met to contemplate these issues.)

De-riskers

In additional to irritants, we need those who mint permission, “de-riskers” as Swisher calls them. Someone has to make it OK for others to take risks. Swisher points out that Elon Musk made it ok for Ford and BMW to take the risk on electric vehicles.

Because he paved the way for them. He was the early risk-taker, right? He was de-risking it for them. So you need somebody in your organization who is willing to take the arrows.

The thing we especially forget when beating the innovation drum is how hard a really new idea is to think. In the usual “biz lit” prayer book, innovation is a joyful experience. We just summon our courage. And jump off the deep end. Eazy peazy. Right?

Wrong. New ideas are painful and frightening. The innovation zone is not sunny or fun. Things we haven’t thought before are strange and weird. Eventually we will skin them with familiarity, but when new, brand new, ideas either resist thinking altogether or pin-wheel around inside our skulls like a Hot Wheels stunt truck. Too often, senior management (well, everyone, really) doesn’t want to think new ideas until they are nice and smooth and worn with wear. Because before the novelty disappears, everything looks like the Microwave Gorilla and provokes a “yeah, right” skepticism.

Or as Comstock puts it,

You have to get out in the world and discover. You have to go where things are really weird. You have to make room for it and people have to see it’s valuable.

Multiplicity

But my favorite piece here are thoughts from both Swisher and Comstock on the importance of multiplicity in the way we think.

Comstock:

I think companies don’t spend enough time thinking through [different scenarios]. I always liked those red team, blue team exercises that came out of the military, where you deliberately seed one point of view versus the other and you kind of set up a cage match. … I think if you’re really serious about innovation, and your investors are serious about you having a future, you have to have a separate lane where you’re investing in some of these things, longer return, you’re testing ideas.

This is not the first time, Comstock has talked about multiplicity. See her comments here. I have tried to imagine a scenario-centric corporation here.

Swisher:

I wanted to do scenario-building. I was obsessed with the idea of what are the 10 things that could happen … that’s how I do my reporting actually. That’s my little secret.

Comstock:

Journalism is a great background for that.

Swisher:

I make up things all the time, and then one of them is right.

Comstock

Yeah. Because then you’re testing. You’re constantly testing.

Swisher:

Yeah, then I’ll call people and they’re like, “How did you know?” And I’m like, “I just made it up. Turns out to be true.” One of them is true. Like it’s interesting and it’s always pushing against something.

This is, or should be, management and journalism now that the world rushes in at us. The time between first sighting and ‘right on your doorstep’ is collapsing by orders of magnitude. So you have to spot things early, imagine them ferociously, and domesticate them fast. Otherwise, we are captives of catch-up.

This is where multiplicity and complexity come in. We have to surround ourselves with many versions of the world and we have to learn to manage the intellectual complexity this makes necessary. And this surely means that some captains of industry may not have quite enough intellectual omph to make the journey. For this group, Microwave Gorillas, not to mention much of the rest of the world, must remain an enduring mystery.

Color is culture (disruption watch)

Watching for the future feels optional.

Watching for disruption, that’s more urgent.

One way to look for disruption is to watch our color palette.

Cause color is culture. And that means it can tell us that culture is changing.

I was reminded of this when I went to an artisanal fair in Hudson, New York. Everyone around me was dressed in autumnal hues. I had turned out in a bright yellow that can only be called nautical. (I wear this coat not because I sail, but because I am very much hoping I will not get run over when walking at night.)

Autumnal colors, good. Nautical yellow, bad. Color matters because color is culture. (Thank you, Peter Spear, for your patience with a tone-deaf visitor.)

So last night, watching TV, I couldn’t help notice this new ad for Cadillac.  Notice the riotous use of color.

This struck me especially because Cadillac recently used a very different palette, showing new models drifting through the moody, monochromatic, streets of Soho. Very quiet, very hip, very dialed down.

So what gives with all the colors? No, I’m asking. What gives?  Is this an indication of a change in culture? Is this the future whispering in our ear?

But of course, this could well be an eccentric choice on the part of the brand or the agency. That’s always possible. But let’s assume that the people at the brand and the agency is listening to culture as hard as we are…and possibly, just possibly, they think they’ve heard something, they’ve spotted a future, they have seen a disruption in the works.

As I was suggesting in the last post (How to read a t-shirt) we cannot follow everything happening “out there” in culture. We have to rely on other listeners. We have to divide the labor of our disruption watch.

The question now: Are big, extravagant colors coming? And does this suggest something in culture that might be big and extravagant too? Is the new prosperity going to change our palette, our messaging, and the messages that matter in brand building? Is the economy going to drive culture in new directions?

No, I’m asking. Is it?

Postscript.

You know who might have an answer to these questions is Ingrid Fetell Lee who, as it happens, has just published a book called The Aesthetics of Joy. For more details, see  Ingrid’s website here.

Peter Spear has a great newsletter called That Business of Meaning. I think you can subscribe here. Otherwise visit Peter’s website here.

 

American culture* and problem solving (case study #7)

At the Culture Camp in June, we will be applying our knowledge of American culture to the following topics.

1: Futures of work (the physical, hierarchical and emotional changes in how we work)

2: Futures of social (meme making, identity construction and pinging the hive)

3: Futures of storytelling (TV, marketing, movies, advertising)

4: Futures of branding (artisanal, consumer packaged goods and brand you)

5: Futures of retail (the mall, Main Street, fighting the Amazon dragon)

6: Futures of consumer engagement (brand activation and other Culturematics)

7: Futures of financial services (speaking to different segments, in new languages with new logics)

8: Futures of Health & Wellness (new cultural ideas of body, mind and spirit)

9: Futures of the American Home & American Family (critical contexts for CPG)

10: Futures of Tourism & Hospitality (engaged travel, share economies)

11) Futures of Social Good (the economy of social change)

I can hear someone saying, “But you can’t possibly cover all this territory in a day.”

But that is the beauty of a cultural approach. It gives us knowledge that is deep and broad. It gives us a single set of principles that apply across the board.

Culture operates everywhere to shape the American experience (and experiment). So it can be used to solve a great breadth of problems.

Or to use the visual metaphor that features in my opening deck on culture.

Any and every culture looks like London from the air. A great mass of detail and complexity. Like this:

But once we do our study of culture, this world looks a lot more like this:

We can see the parts, the wholes and the relationships. More than that, we can see the logics that make this world make sense. This has always been anthropology’s promise. It casts the net wide. It struggles to see things whole. We will show how we can use anthropology to solve a range of problems. Come join us.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and big data (case study #6)

American culture is a dynamic thing. It is busting out all over. There are several ways to contend with this blooming confusion, and we will look at several of them at culture.camp on June 7. (Please come join us.)

One of our best opportunities is big data. Here are some very big data indeed, courtesy of ESRI. This is a screen-grab of their real time rendering of Boston.

 

This is Boston. From a God-like point of view. (Though I think we know God abandoned Boston a long time ago.)

I have a dream. We listen to Boston by listening to its data streams. This data can be SKU (stock keeping unit) data, vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic…well the possibilities are now many and diverse.

What are we listening for? Departures. It’s a little like SETI. We are listening for something, almost anything, that breaks from the baseline we have established. We are listening for a signal…instead of all that noise.

For instance, we are listening for a spike in SKU data. Or a shift in traffic. And we are really listening for two streams of data both departing from baseline at once.

Hey, presto. There’s a place downtown that is selling a selling new kind of drink and we can see by traffic patterns that this bar is attracting a new volume of attention.

The map is showing us American culture in action. It may be an artifact. It may be a mirage. It may be a figment of our over-eager imagination.

But what if it’s something? What if we just got a message from the future? What if we are looking at something that will someday transform consumer taste and preference in the spirits category?

What is this worth to us? What would it be worth to Pernod Ricard or Diageo to have 6 months of advance notice of this shift. Peter Schwartz says the American corporation lives in a state of perpetual surprise. This “big board” system would return to an “advance warning” model. With all the strategy and planning advantages that that confers.

I had a chance to talk to ESRI people at an IIR conference in Florida in the spring. (Thank you, Romina Kunstadter. Thank you, Dominik Tarolli.)

ESRI sees their geographical data in layers, as below.


And this is a pretty good metaphor for the way we want to bring American culture together with kinds of other data.

Really, there are two objectives. How do we make the cultural layer make other layers significant? How do we use these other layers alert us to cultural developments and help us understand them?

We can imagine the scenario.

“There’s this bar in the North End! Something is happening there!”

This is where we send in the anthropologists, the ethnographers, the design thinkers, the likes of IDEO, the Canvas8, Trend watching, perhaps a creative class from SVA or the dSchool at Stanford. We are there at the beginning.

Culture is the cause and the consequence of much of what happens in American markets. But like everything else in those markets, it is also diverse, complex and dynamic. Big data to the rescue. And I think we can argue that the “rescue” works the other way around: culture can make data meaningful that is now merely big.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

American culture* and platforms for producer creativity (case study 5)

1950s officeYesterday we talked about platforms for consumer creativity.

Today we will talk about platforms for the producer creativity.

The corporation was meant to serve as this platform. It brought together the people and processes needed to create innovation and extract value.

But sometime after World War II, the world began to see that the corporation was actually not very good at creativity. (May it please the court, I enter the photo above as evidence.)

Part of the problem was that the corporation was better at keeping things out than letting things in.

It had thick boundaries. It contained silos. It demanded a certain manner of dress and speech and sometimes thinking and thought. This excluded many things and it especially excluded American culture.

It was a tragic trade-off that created an efficient corporate culture at the cost of essential knowledge.

Tragic and kind of dim. When we removed cultural intelligence in this way, we rendered the organization incapable of understanding the consumer it claimed to care about. From the deep well of the corporation, the consumer was virtually inaudible when not completely invisible.

Various expedients were created to make the corporate culture more sensitive to and inclusive of American culture. There were agencies and consultants who plotted an orbital course around the corporation, far enough away to know something about this American culture, but close enough to the corporation they could “airlock” this intelligence in.

Those days are behind us largely. Every corporation cares about innovation, and at least sometimes this is a de facto acknowledgement of caring about the world “out there.” The corporation is making itself less siloed, less boundaried and more porous. American culture now pours in. Well, flows. Ok, trickles.

People are still a little nervous about Karl in the mailroom. (The chief question: Are ALL the tattoos really necessary?) But now that so many people have tattoos even this anxiety has subsided. Diversity hiring has also helped break down the Us and Them distinctions that so diminished the conversation. Popular culture is steadily less idiotic so conversations at lunch are often a useful, if unofficial, review of things happening in American culture.

But it remains the case that every organization has staffed with people who know much more about American culture than they are ever allowed to say. My friend Tom Guarriello is good on this theme. He says that most organizations “leave money on the table.” They hire people and then fail to consult them on what they know. For some organizations, amnesia remains the order of the day. Too often the “go to” expert on American culture is the intern.

This really is a question of how American culture is made to articulate with corporate culture, and this will be a lively question for the culture.camp on June 7. We have deeply knowledgeable people in place. I hope you will join us.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.